After classes for the semester at Tabor Adelaide concluded two weeks ago, fellow lecturer Matt Gray and I out flew out to Zambia. With us are SA pastor Jenny (a Tabor Adelaide graduate), WA pastor Mick (who also teaches at Tabor Perth), and WA church leader Mark. We’re here to teach pastors and leaders as part of a partnership established between Australian and Zambian Baptists. The Zambian Church has asked us Aussies to help with theological education, and the goal is to set up a program that both teaches foundational courses to a wider group of pastors and leaders and also trains a smaller group of those students to become teachers of those courses into the future.
This is my third visit to this beautiful country, and it is wonderful to have Matt join the team this year. I’m teaching in Kabwe, a town of about 200,000 people about 2 hours north of the capital Lusaka. Matt is teaching in Fiwale Hill, a much smaller village/former mission station about 30 minutes south of the city of Ndola and the DRC border. Students in both our classes come from villages in the surrounding regions, with many travelling significant distances to attend.
Matt is teaching Story of the Church (an introduction to Church history) and has a class of around 50 pastors and leaders, many of whom have not had the opportunity to experience this kind of instruction. My class of 16 students includes pastors and teachers, and they have in previous years attended the kind of foundation level classes Matt and others are teaching. Now we are training them so that they can teach those classes in the future. I am teaching the Psalms after doing an Old Testament overview with them last year.
Our “classrooms” are church buildings, each a simple concrete structure, which makes for great acoustics when the students sing (as they often do)! Our students sit on concrete pews (Fiwale Hill) or plastic chairs (Kabwe). Most students have their own Bible and pen. We provide notes and any other resources we are using. In Kabwe, we are fortunate to have a whiteboard and anything that gets written on it is dutifully copied by all the students, as they want to make sure they don’t miss anything! Although there are over 70 tribal groups/languages in Zambia, English is the official language. I teach in English, while Matt is translated into Lamba, the local language predominant in that region.
Most of my class sleeps overnight in our room and they cook lunch and dinner over a charcoal fire outside. This usually consists of nshima (maize porridge – the staple food) dipped in relish (a vegetable or two and a soup). Sometimes lunch is more substantial, as the chicken that has been squawking through morning lectures at the back of the room is no more. It is quite hot in the classroom with the weather around 35 degrees and humid most days, but this is more of a challenge for us Aussie teachers than for the locals (one of my students wore a faux fur coat last week when the temperature dipped below 25 degrees!) The rainy season is just about to start and many will be eager to return home next week to tend any crops they grow. As far as I can tell, there is no such thing as a non-bi-vocational local pastor here.
With the smaller class of teachers, I have had the privilege of getting to know the students better and hearing more of their stories. They are an incredibly inspiring group. Most have experienced significant loss and hardship in their lives. They are ministering in a context where 10-15% of adults are HIV positive, the unemployment rate hovers around 15% (significantly higher for youth), and 25% of people are affected by malaria each year, with 8,000 (mostly children under 5 and pregnant women) dying from it. It is also a constitutionally Christian country where faith is evident in daily life in numerous ways, a collectivist culture where community and relationships are highly valued, and a place where singing, dancing, and expressing joy and thanks seem to be shown more naturally and more often than I have seen anywhere else in the world.
I ask students to pray at the beginning and end of each class and I love to listen to their prayers as they pray remembered Scriptures, call out praises, humbly thank God for bringing us safely through another day, and seek blessing for the class, their churches, and their nation. We have some older men who have been pastors for many years and are well respected by all in the class. They’re very good at asking questions that connect what we’re learning with their churches’ situations. We have some younger women pastors who are usually quieter in the large group but are asking themselves great questions about the “Christian culture” here and how the gospel critiques it. We have two younger men who are graduates of the program and now oversee the courses, but they’re still keen to come to every class and learn as much as they can.
All the students are incredibly eager to learn. They are passionate about Jesus and about His church, and they so value the opportunity they have to learn more about His Word. They soak up everything I can share with them, whether it is about the course topic or about anything else around faith or the Bible that comes up, however tangentially related, that they think I might have some information or insight into. It makes me realise how often we take our access to education for granted.
There is also much that we are learning from being here. For me, if my interpretation of the Bible only “works” in my comfortable, middle-class, Western context, then it doesn’t “work” at all. Though they may not know it, my students here help me to critique the ways in which I read the Bible and understand my faith through the prism of my own culture and its many shortcomings. We pray that our time here will be a blessing not only to us, to our students and through them to the churches here, but also to our students and churches back home in Australia as we hopefully become better teachers in our own context due to what we have learned here.
Melinda Cousins- Tabor Adelaide Lecturer